Dear Most Esteemed and Knowledgeable Kitties:
My 4-year-old male cat has curled every whisker from our gas stove, what can I do to make him comfortable? How long will it take for him to shed and regrow new ones?
Siouxsie: Thomas, I ought to let you take this one ’cause you’re a champion at singeing your fur!
Thomas: Aw, Siouxsie, that’s just mean. Back when we lived on the family homestead, our house was cold and the heater was so nice and warm. I just couldn’t help myself! Besides, I never crisped my whiskers, just my flanks.
Bella: I’ve never crisped any of my fur because I’m special!
Siouxsie: You’re not special, you fool. You just joined our family after Mama learned better than to have candles burning and after we’d moved to a warmer place. Besides, I can remember somebody hopping up onto the heater at our last apartment … and it’s a good thing you’re such a fast mover or you would have had some scalded paws to remind you about that encounter.
Siouxsie: Anyway, Peter, the good news is that the damage is not permanent, although I’m sure your kitty is feeling a bit disoriented. After all, our whiskers are a very important part of our sensory system.
Thomas: But don’t worry, it doesn’t hurt. There aren’t any nerves in the whiskers themselves.
Bella: But the whiskers (and in fact they’re called vibrissae by veterinarians and scientists) …
Bella: …ahem. The vibrissae are deeply embedded in the skin and are sprouted from special hair follicles with lots and lots of nerves, which is why they’re such a crucial part of how we see the world around us.
Thomas: That said, we do shed whiskers just like we shed our regular fur. It takes anywhere from a few weeks to a few months for a whisker to regrow to its full length, and until your kitty’s whiskers …
Siouxsie: Okay, Bella, we all know they’re called vibrissae. Now, go somewhere else and study your vocabulary lessons!
Bella: Why are you so mean to me? *sniffle*
Siouxsie: Perk up your ears and lick those tears off your whisk … vibrissae, before I give you something to cry about.
Thomas: Siouxsie, be nice.
Siouxsie: Oh, for heaven’s sake. *sigh* I’m sorry, Bella. That new cat food mama tried gave me the runs, and my bottom hurts.
Bella: Eeewww! TMI!
Thomas: Thanks for sharing, Siouxsie. Now, can we get back on to the whisker thing?
Siouxsie: Basically, Peter, you probably shouldn’t let your cat go wandering around while his whiskers are crisped. Mama says it would be like a person who needs glasses walking out of the house without them on: that person (probably) could function, but they wouldn’t be able to detect some of the hazards in their environment.
Thomas: Mama wrote an article about cat whiskers that will tell you more about how our whiskers work and why they’re so important to us.
Bella: In a few months, your cat should have his full complement of vibrissae back, and all will be right with his world. Hopefully he’s learned his lesson and you won’t have any more singed-whiskers episodes to deal with.